In order to be able to record the world under water even better, I decided to take an advanced diving course on the topic of underwater photography on the Koh Tao Island in the Gulf of Thailand. After comparing a little, I found what I was looking for at the Sairee Cottage Divers. A 4-day course for 20,000 baht (equivalent to ca. $500) including all course materials, diving equipment and 9 dives with lunch on the boat.
Day 1 – Theory and pool lesson
My trainers welcomed me at the reception area of the diving school at 10:00 am on the first day. Paddy is a Divemaster from England and has already worked as an underwater photographer for the Sairee Cottage Divers for a few years. Usually, he takes care of the beautiful souvenir photos of the Open Water Diver course. From time to time, he also teaches divers, like me, the art of underwater photography.
Hitting the books
As is usual at the beginning of every diving course, we started with a theory lesson. The fundamentals of photography and their application below the surface of the sea were in the foreground. As you can imagine, not all methods onshore are applicable 1 to 1 to weightlessness and other circumstances below water. For example, all objects appear somewhat larger and closer due to water. This must be taken into consideration for the camera angles.
Water – The natural enemy of the camera
In order to be able to take photos below water, not only do you need to learn special techniques, but also the necessary equipment. Logically, an appropriate casing is essential. Here you are spoilt for choice between the various brands and types of cases, from an economical plastic bag for snapshots while snorkelling to a full-fledged metal casing. As with most hobbies, there are hardly any limits for fantasy and budget.
Diving cases for first-time users begin at about $300. First of all, it is important to get competent advice from a trusted supplier, in order to find the right equipment for your needs.
Nothing is more annoying than finding out that something is wrong with the chosen option once on holiday because not all buttons of the camera can be reached through the casing for instance.
1000 and 1 accessories
In addition to the casing, there are of course all sorts of possibilities to expand your equipment. For example, choosing different lenses, which can be screwed onto the casing, provided that this is possible.
Due to the frequent lack of sufficient illumination, it is recommendable to take an additional light source with you on your dive. The flash of the camera though is not usually a good alternative. In most cases, you either use an external flash or a torch for that purpose. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, which should be pondered about. Personally, I have decided to use a torch, which can be mounted onto the case by means of a handle. For me, the space-saving while travelling and the additional application as a plain underwater torch were decisive.
The pool lesson
The theory lesson on dry land was followed by practical exercises in the diving pool. At a depth of 3 metres, equilibrium was sought initially. Depending on the selected camera configuration, it can be positively or negatively buoyant, and this has to be balanced. In order to simulate this, Paddy kept giving me different weights in the hands and taking them back. As if I was taking the camera from one hand to the other hand during the dive. Depending on the level of experience, time is required to practise this, reason why we generally recommend that only experienced divers should engage themselves in underwater photography. Otherwise, not only do you endanger yourself but also the underwater world due to possible problems with buoyancy.
Finally, I still practised a few previously discussed settings for different motives. The shutter speed and aperture in the manual mode are given the most attention when photographing underwater.
Day 2 – Wide angle, macro, ambient light and flash
For my first two dives, I began with a wide angle lens since I am fond of landscape photographs above all on land as well. So as not to be too confused, I did not get any external light source from Paddy initially but rather was given the task to use the existing ambient light for the exposure of the picture.
No matter what equipment you use for photographing, the following golden rules are valid:
Rule number one: Your own safety and the safety of the animals (also corals!) always come first! This means that we do not hold onto anything nor do we swim after living creatures that are obviously seeking peace!
Only get as close as possible to the object of desire (respect Rule No. 1!)
Never photograph from above
It is best to snap pictures of something in the direction of the surface in order to capture as much ambient light as possible
To photograph an animal from behind is not only dumb, but it also shows that you did not respect rule number 1
Look me in the eyes, little one: Try to focus on the eyes. If the living creature is looking straight at the camera, without you scaring it, this will be fascinating for the beholder.
For the further composition of the photo, the Rule of Thirds is particularly useful.
Generally speaking, the camera offers a grid with 9 squares of equal size as assistance. Simply put, it is therefore sensible not to place the main object directly in the middle, but rather to let a fish, for example, swim “into the picture”. In contrast, “out of the picture”, so to say in the last third from left to right, looks rather strange in most cases.
For our third dive at a different diving site close to the island, Paddy chose the combination of a macro lens with just a flash first, for me t
o get slowly used to the surroundings. Contrary to expectations, I had a lot of fun while macro-photographing. During this first dive, I was already able to observe particularities that I had never noticed during “normal” diving. For example, you could actually discern the behavioural pattern of anemone fish, whose anticipation can, in turn, result in the desired photo. Besides observing, one can adhere to another principle: If you want to find little creatures, such as slugs, then look for their fodder. 😉
Day 3 – Wide angel and two flashes
On the third day then, I was ready for the “whole package”. Wide angle lens screwed on, one flash on the left, one adjusted to the right and off we go on a wild ride. It really turned out to be a “wild ride”. Suddenly everything made sense. The theory, the compensation in the pool and the previous day with a “light version” of the use of flashes. Overwhelmed by all of the setting options and the additional current, I was not able to do much at the first go. More equipment, namely, not only means more weight but also more contact surface for water movements.
Only during the third and fourth dive at a wreck, I became slowly familiar with the subject. Nevertheless, at the end of the day I decided to practise again next time, with a similar configuration that I also have in my luggage.
Day 4 – Wide angle, macro, and video with ambient light
Although I had a diving lamp with a suitable fastening for my underwater case in my suitcase, on the last day I decided, mind the pun, to focus on the use of ambient light. For the first dive, Paddy familiarised me as well with the “close focus wide angle” technique. As the name says, you try to get as close as possible to an object, which you use to compose the foreground, and then try to catch as much background (light) as possible with the help of the wide angle lens. Fully concentrated on the composition of the picture and the right camera settings, I found my favoured photography method here.
During the subsequent macro dive, I was also able to indulge in my newly acquired interests. Finally, we used the last dive for a couple of videography techniques. Moving images often elicit much more comprehension for the wonderful underwater world in someone who has never gone diving before, than photographs.
At this point, I would like to thank Paddy wholeheartedly once again for the really great and instructive course, as well as the entire Sairee Cottage Diving Team for 4 relaxing days on board.